I was trawling through the awful comments directed at Rose Eveleth after she called out a scientist for his inappropriate shirt. The fact the shirt was inappropriate is neatly summed up here, and it’s not my intent to reprise that debate. No, what grabbed my attention as I polluted my brain by reading the hateful, misogynist rubbish being directed at Ms Eveleth for daring to express an opinion was that so, so many of the people spewing forth their drivel have cars in their profile pictures or pictures of cars prominently in their feed.
This isn’t a new conclusion I’ve come to. I undertook a similar foray into the dark-side back in 2012 in relation to racist comments in Australia. I’d forgotten about that article until I started noticing exactly the same pattern in the Eveleth comments. I’m not saying that everyone with cars in their profile picture is racist or sexist – however I am saying their’s a significant correlation.
The other thing that the Eveleth comments drove home again is the astonishing fact that so many of these people are willing to attach their names to threats of rape and death in a context is only a click away from their families, friends and workmates.
But here’s what I said two years ago, it still seems pertinent today.
A friend of mine commented on a post from Facebook group called Ban the Burqa (who I’m not going to link to) so it showed up on my Facebook timeline. The post showed a picture of a young boy at the recent Sydney riots holding up a poster saying ‘Behead all those who insult the prophet.” I started reading the comments and found myself in a welter of ugly Australia. Thinking to do another article about why people are prepared to attach their names to horrible comments, I kept reading.
And then it struck me. There was a pattern to the posts, or at least to the Facebook pages of those making the posts. To verify what I was seeing I went back to the beginning and went through the first 800 posts picking out those that were overtly racist (there were many others that were ugly but I followed the racist line). Picking the posts was not difficult, here are some samples:
“Pack em up.. Send em home!”
“Letter box heads have already fucked up their own country and are doing the same to ours , piss off you arent welcome here with your Muslim bullshit”
“Get that fucking sheet of your head and make a kite with it you fucking inbreds!”
“Kill all towel heads one by one in front of each other the way they like it”
“Kill them all starting with the babies!!!”
There were a roughly equal number of racist comments from men and women although the men were slightly ahead. I couldn’t find any pattern in the women’s Facebook pages though, except perhaps a slight fondness for fluffy dogs.
There were 82 men making overtly racist comments in my sample. Forty-four of them, or 54 per cent, had a car or motorbike featuring obviously on their Facebook page. By ‘obvious’ I mean it was clearly something that mattered to them; it wasn’t, for example, a car in the background of a wedding shot. Which leads me to the inference that there’s some connection – not so much a connection with cars, perhaps, but a connection between those who see their car as the thing to feature on their Facebook page and a propensity to make racist remarks in public forums.
After looking at hundreds of Facebook pages from people prepared to post publicly racist comments the thing, apart from the car pictures, that struck me was their overall banality. These are not pages of hate-filled diatribes. They are pictures of weddings and families. The person advocating sending ‘them’ all home may have a picture of himself with his 90-year-old grandmother from Greece. The woman advocating having children put into care will have pictures of her own kids’ drawings. It’s that normality which continually drives home to me how the Internet brings me into contact with parts of my own country and city that I just don’t normally see, until our worlds collide.
So do I really believe you can draw a link between racism and posting pictures of cars on your Facebook page? No, of course not. For a start I could have picked a number of other things to have my fun with – the way the posters so often got ‘their’ and ‘there’ mixed up is an obvious one. No, I can’t use my small sample and bodgy statistics to draw a conclusion about a whole group of racists.
Any more than a group of racists can use a single photo or a few hundred hot-heads in Sydney to draw a conclusion about the billions of people who follow a religion. It’s simply baseless and creating a pattern where it doesn’t exist.
The difference between us is that I’d be happy to show my children this article. I wonder how many of the people I looked in on today could say the same about the things they posted? I wonder how many of them have even thought through that it only takes a click to find them, to find where they work, to find which soccer team they coach. They are not anonymous.
Anyway, while we’re on the subject of pattern matching. In the course at looking at hundreds of Facebook pages I noticed that the advertisements that Facebook was displaying to me had changed. I started seeing a lot of ads for cars. I also, and this made me laugh, started seeing an advert encouraging me to join the Federal Police. That made me smile in a way which nothing else in my morning’s reading did.